My Dad and Christmas and the Peter Pan Diner

By Marlene Settanni

At Christmastime when I was young, I could count on three things: Santa Claus, midnight Mass and a last-minute shopping trip with my father.

One or two days before Christmas, Dad would ask me to go along with him to buy a gift for Mom. I’d never say no, although I often wished I could. While I loved the one-on-one attention from my father, the last-minute part of the deal always made me nervous. Looking back, I realize Dad hoped to make use of some inborn “womanly” instinct in me that even in their up-and-coming phases would help me help him choose something my mother would love. I knew he was counting on me.

On the day of, I sat by Dad’s side in the front seat of our old Chevy as the clock ticked towards Christmas Eve, apprehension flooding my chest. My mood would lift only when I thought about the after-shopping part, where we’d get to relax and share hot chocolate at the Peter Pan Diner, a small restaurant behind the Main Street stores.

First, though. We needed to head for Genung’s.

Hands down, Genung’s Department Store was the ritziest in town – so high-priced that we avoided it the rest of the year, Robert Halls and Woolworths filling the bill for us. But adding in the allure of a store label that was bound to impress, impressive Christmas sales and last-minute desperation made Genung’s the place to go to buy a gift for someone special. And there couldn’t have been anyone more special than Mom.

In the car, Dad’s rich voice filled the air between us, his Irish-tinged words never failing to highlight a humorous and unique take on life and child-rearing.“You’re going to pay for my hot chocolate, aren’t you now”

“I don’t have any money, Dad.”

“What do you do with all your money then”

“I don’t even have a job.”

“What? I have a daughter who’s unemployed”

“I’m only nine.”

“Nine? Well, all right, then you’re bound to be 10 next year. Next year you get a job and you’ll be able to pay for my hot chocolate.”

“What kind of job”

“Vice President.”

“But I’m a girl.”


“Girls can’t be Vice President.”

“Who said”


“Dad? Why only Vice President”

“That’s my girl.”

Sometimes he’d hum along with the radio. “White Christmas”… “Jingle Bells”… anything. Always cheerful, always off-key. And in between the banter and the music, he’d never forget to mention how proud he was of his only daughter.

Before long, we’d be parking the car.

I’ll never forget how Dad always opened the door to Genung’s for me as if I were a real lady instead of a scrawny kid. Inside, the store would be aglow with fancy ornaments hanging above our heads, dangling from brilliant strands of sparkling silver garland. It seemed to me that every saleswoman wore red nail polish, a suit with a sparkly pin, and a weary smile.

“May I help you, sir,” They’d ask my Dad, as we passed from one department to another.

“No thank you, young lady,” he’d answer, no matter the woman’s age. “Though if we need your help, we’ll give you a holler.”

In the ladies’ outerwear section, we’d usually have some measure of success, but one particular year, the leftover coats were all either too big or too small. We plowed through each rack for what seemed like forever until Dad finally called out, his eyes glassy with hope, “Here’s one your mother’s size! What do you think”

“Wow.” I said, taking it from him with great difficulty. “It’s very red and very heavy.”

“No good”

My mind conjured up the image of my short conservative mom hefting its cardinal redness out of the box on Christmas morning, tipping backwards onto the floor with the weight of it, and it was hard not to smile. I waited for his comment, the muscles of my face twitching.

“It is very red, isn’t it” He said, grinning.

We looked through the rack again, but nothing. My angst returned with a vengeance, the store growing warm… the situation hopeless. I worried that by the time we found something to buy, the diner would be closed. And the best part of the night would be gone.

Finally, Dad blushed and mumbled. “Let’s go over to the sleepwear and look at some ladies’ things, stockings maybe”

“Okay.” I said right away, knowing how much easier it had been for him to discuss coats.

Thankfully, we hit the jackpot soon after with a nightgown and bathrobe in blue, Mom’s favorite color and her precise size, together with five pairs of nylons. I knew she’d like her gifts and that was all that mattered.

That and the hot chocolate.

And so it was that about two days before Christmas every year as a young girl, I had a date with my father at the Peter Pan Diner.  It was just a small place behind a store called Genung’s where we’d shop at the last minute for my mother. Inside would be excited voices, smiling faces and standing room only. The air would be filled with cigarette smoke, frying food smells and music from a transistor radio… “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Sometimes Dad and I would sit side by side on stools.  Sometimes we’d be lucky enough to get a small booth. There’d be colored lights strung along the frosty windows and in my mind’s eye anyway, snow was always falling.  We’d talk and laugh, Christmas as close by as our cups of steaming chocolate.  And despite the crowds and the noise, for every minute that Dad and I sat together inside that tiny space and time, we were the only two people in the whole wide world.

About this writer

  • Marlene Settanni

    Marlene Settanni

    Marlene Settanni is a freelance writer, mom and doting grandmother of four, who is enthralled by all things family.

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2 Responses to “My Dad and Christmas and the Peter Pan Diner”

  1. Len Stillson says:

    Great memories of a wonderful man and his terrific daughter.. Thanks for sharing Mar!

  2. Linda O'Connell says:

    What a very special nostalgic piece. Very heart warming.

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